Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.08.12 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.08.12

Germán Santana Henríquez, Literatura y Cine.   Madrid:  Ediciones Clásicas, 2012.  Pp. 345.  ISBN 9788478827565.  


Reviewed by Clayton Miles Lehmann, University of South Dakota (clehmann@usd.edu)

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

According to Germán Santana Henríquez’s preliminary note, this book contains, in the order of their presentation, versions of papers delivered 24-28 October 2011 in Arucas, Gran Canaria, at a seminar of the Universidad de Las Palmas de Gran Canaria on the adaptation of literature in visual art, especially film and television. Most of the papers treat adaptations of the literature and history of the ancient world, and this review focuses on these. But I should briefly notice the papers that address adaptation of post-classical literature, and those, I am afraid, I can recommend more highly than the others. Francisco Ponce Lang-Lenton shows how the adaptation of nineteenth-century serial novels determined the essential character of the modern cinema and then goes on to analyze how the visual adaptations differ from their sources. Victoria Galván González in the strongest essay in the book gives us a sophisticated analysis of Gonzalo Suárez’s adaptations of Clarín’s La Regenta. Mónica Martínez Sariego offers a fine theoretical essay on grades of adaptation, including the ‘decantation’ of cultural prototypes shared by any artistic form in the way that Plato describes when he speaks of the ‘immortal seed’ of cultural transmission (147, citing Phaedrus 276e-277a). She uses beauty-and-the-beast type stories to illustrate the difference between adaptation and decantation. For example, Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) remakes William Dieterle’s film (1939) and adapts Victor Hugo’s novel, while Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands (1990) ‘decants’ not only deliberately but also unconsciously a host of cultural prototypes shared by stories about vampires and Frankenstein, King Kong and Beauty and the Beast.

The first paper of the seminar, by Marcos Martínez Hernández, opens with some very summary comments on the history of film and its relation to literature. He then turns to films about the ancient world in general and finally to his main concern, films about the Greek world. He notes that films about the Roman world greatly overshadow those about Greece in number and success because of the poorly developed Greek film industry, the lack of spectacular settings and stories, the paucity of novels ready for cinematic adaptation, and the complexity of Greek literature. In order to control that complexity Martínez uses categories of genre to organize films based on Greek literature: mythology (divine and heroic), epic, lyric, drama, history, philosophy, fables, and novels. He gives an exhaustive list, riddled with errors, for each category, and omits, as far as I noticed, only The Symposium (Michael Wurth, 2003).1

After Ponce’s paper on adaptation of modern serial novels, Rosa Sierra del Molino reminds us that recent scholarship has exposed the distorted image of the empress Livia in hostile, misogynist Roman sources. Nevertheless, modern popular presentations such as the BBC’s I, Claudius (1976) continue to portray her supposedly vicious influence on Augustus, meddling in politics, and manipulation of the imperial succession.2 Sierra analyzes the negativity of the BBC’s Livia episode by episode but explains it as no more than a willingness to stretch facts in order to attract an audience. She assumes that Graves worked faithfully from his tendentious sources, especially Tacitus, but has no interest in treating the series’ departures from the novels or Graves’s political and ideological orientation.

There follow the papers on La Regenta and monsters and maidens. Then Antonio María Martín Rodríguez turns to the women of Spartacus. In the first quarter of his paper he reviews the historiography of Spartacus’s revolt and its adaptations in literature (tragedies and novels from Bernard-Joseph Saurin’s in 1760 to Howard Fast’s in 1951), film (from the silent era to Stanley Kubrick’s in 1960), television (Starz’s Blood and Sand series of 2010), and even Aram Khachaturian’s ballet and its movie version by Vadim Derbenyov (1977). Then he looks comprehensively at the treatment of women in the sources and in these adaptations. The latter not only flesh out the wife Plutarch mentions; they also invent mothers, sisters, and lovers—slave and patrician—in order to enhance their plots. But the women cannot have a significant role because any personal relation domesticates Spartacus and dilutes the social and revolutionary message of his revolt. Antonio Martín analyzes the women only in relationship to Spartacus; for a treatment of these women as characters in their own right one has to look forward to another study.

The editor of the collection, Germán Santana Henríquez, offers a compressed summary of the history of animated films with special reference to Disney films. His pages on the theory of symbolism and myth in particular suffer from excessively long quotations and allusive or even opaque comments (Erich Fromm on alienation, Dorfman and Mattelart on ideological commodification, Román Gubern on politicization, Marc Augé and Joseph Campbell on myth). His explanation for the popularity of animated films boils down to the truism that people like to escape daily life (268). In order to satisfy the public and ensure profitability of films like Hercules, Disney turns the hero into an object of consumption, strips the story of its ancient meanings, and creates a new political and social meaning appropriate to the target audience of children and their parents. This derivative essay offers little of value.

María de la Luz García Fleitas notices that modern treatments of Cleopatra derive from Roman sources whose misogyny and xenophobia opposed her exotic, depraved, and emasculating exoticism to the matronly and obedient austerity of Octavia. Actresses such as Theda Bara and Claudette Colbert who portrayed Cleopatra titillated audiences and filled the movie theaters; at the same time they reassured a patriarchal society that women who lived beyond the constraints imposed by men would self-destruct. García concludes with Elizabeth Taylor’s more complex Cleopatra. In Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s film, Cleopatra appears as an intellectual, a stateswoman, and a mother, not merely a threatening oriental ruler of dangerous sexuality; here scenes of intimacy ameliorate spectacle.3

Lastly Lidia Martín Adán presents a thorough but mechanical scene-by-scene comparison of the various ancient sources of the story of Jason and the Argonauts and its adaptation in the movie by Don Chaffey (1963) and the TV miniseries by Nick Willing (2000). These versions, she observes, return to the original epic tradition that highlights Jason’s role, but they adapt it to suit a modern audience. Therefore they discount the powerful role that Euripides gave to Medea, which dominated treatments of the story for the rest of antiquity. Martín notices the attention that Medea received in various modern venues down to the Medeas of Pier Paolo Pasolini (1968) and Lars von Trier (1988), but she does not include these sophisticated adaptations in her comparison because they downplay the role of Jason.

Ediciones Clásica has a large list of inexpensively produced classical texts and studies, including as here conference proceedings. I suspect they do not have much of an editing staff. García’s chapter has numerous postage-stamp-sized photographs of paintings (usually captioned) and movie stills (never captioned), an inconsistent citation style, and a host of typographical errors. It represents most egregiously the general failure of careful proofreading and rigorous editing throughout this book. Each chapter follows its own citation style. While all but one have footnotes, only three have reference lists. Except in Ponce’s chapter, the small size of the illustrations makes it difficult or impossible to view them. The book has no index.

The conference that featured these papers represents an upswing in interest in reception in film as deserving of scholarly attention in the Spanish-speaking world. As Ponce observes (69), on this occasion for the first time in thirty years one of the regular seminars of the Facultad de Filología of the Universidad de Las Palmas treated film, but even then only in relation to its big sister, literature. It thus continues an interest shortly before represented in a seminar at the University of Riojas on the reception of antiquity in performing and visual arts.4 Most of the papers in the collection under review show familiarity with the literature in English, French, and Italian. Like me, English readers will benefit from exposure to the scholarship in Spanish on the seventh art (as continental Europeans like to refer to cinema), a body of work that scarcely appears in Anglophone studies on the ancient world in film. They will not find a peculiarly Hispanic orientation or point of departure or treatment of Spanish films other than La Regenta. Marcos Martínez’s list includes, as far as I could determine, only two Spanish films, Una señora llamada Andrés (Julio Buchs, 1970) and Kilma, reina de las amazonas (Miguel Iglesias Bonns, 1975). Nevertheless, specialists working on classical reception with respect to Roman imperial women, Spartacus, Cleopatra, and Jason and the Argonauts will want to consult the respective chapters.

Table of Contents

Germán Santana Henríquez, Nota preliminar (7-9)
Marcos Martínez Hernández, “La literatura griega en el cine” (11-65)
Francisco Ponce Lang-Lenton, “Ver/leer: parecidos y contrastes” (67-92)
Rosa Sierra del Molino, “La Livia histórica frente a la Livia cinematográfica en la serie Yo, Claudio” (93-114)
Victoria Galván González, “Literatura y cine: La Regenta y Gonzalo Suárez” (115-136)
Mónica Martínez Sariego, “Literatura y cine: de la adaptación a la decantación a través del ejemplo del monstruo y la doncella” (137-77)
Antonio María Martín Rodríguez, “De la historia al cine (pasando por la literatura): las mujeres de Espartaco” (179-246)
Germán Santana Henríquez, “Un héroe griego en dibujos animados: Hércules de Walt Disney” (247-80)
María de la Luz García Fleitas, “La imagen estereotipada de Cleopatra VII: supresión y ampliación de roles en el cine” (281- 305)
Lidia Martín Adán, “De la mitología griega al cine: Jasón y los Argonautas” (307-345)

I am grateful to Christian Lehmann for improving this review.


Notes:


1.   Martínez’s list includes titles from televisiοn and video games. He assembled it from a variety of sources, including imdb.com and scholarly works such as Jon Solomon, Peplum: El mundo antiguo en el cine, transl. María Luisa Rodríguez Tapia (Madrid, 2002), which Anglophone readers know as The Ancient World in the Cinema, revised and expanded version (New Haven and London, 2001). He uses the essential collection of essays by continental scholars, Hellas on Screen: Cinematic Receptions of Ancient History, Literature, and Myth, ed. Irene Berti and Marta García Morcillo, Heidelberger Althistorische Beitrage Und Epigraphische Studien, 45 (Stuttgart, 2008): see BMCR 2009.07.63. He does not use Gideon Nisbet, Ancient Greece in Film and Popular Culture, revised second ed. (Exeter, 2008): first edition (2006) reviewed in BMCR 2008.02.31.
2.   While working from the ancient sources, Sierra depends heavily on Anthony A. Barrett, Livia: primera dama de la Roma imperial, transl. from the original English edition (2002) by Inés Belaustegui Trías (Madrid, 2004).
3.   García looks forward to the interpretation by Angelina Jolie, who wants to make her Cleopatra a political leader, not an erotic myth. Based on the biography by Stacy Schiff, Cleopatra: A Life (New York, 2010), this film has a script and a star but as yet no director (IMDB).
4.   Pepa Castillo, Silke Knippschild, Marta García Morcillo, and Carmen Herreros, eds., Congreso Internacional: Imagines: La Antigüedad en las Artes Escénicas y Visuales / International Conference: Imagines: The Reception of Antiquity in Performing and Visual Arts; Logroño, 22-24 de Octobre de 2007. (Logroño, 2008): see BMCR 2009.01.42. Larger than the Arucas seminar and not limited to reception in film, this international conference had papers in English, German, and Italian as well as Spanish, all available online from the University of La Rioja.

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